Villaraigosa Tells Where He Stands

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did not pick immigration to top his public agenda. He rarely discussed the issue during last year’s mayoral campaign and had hoped to spend the spring talking about his first budget -- a controversial package that includes a significant fee hike to pay for more police.

But on March 25, a crowd estimated by police at half a million people massed outside Villaraigosa’s office at City Hall to register their opposition to a bill in Congress that would have imposed new criminal penalties on immigrants who entered the country illegally. Since then, smaller protests and a series of student walkouts have kept the issue near the top of Los Angeles’ agenda and have spread across the nation as well.

As one of the country’s most recognizable Latino politicians, Villaraigosa has naturally been drawn to the emotional debate. He addressed the marchers to express his support for their cause, called on students to return to school and discussed immigration in general terms. Still, Villaraigosa has not weighed in on many of the issue’s specific implications for city services or commented on some of the bills before Congress. On Thursday, he agreed to discuss those details with The Times:


Question: Overall, is immigration a positive or negative issue for you?

Answer: Over the years, as both a legislator and now as mayor, I’ve focused on education, healthcare, jobs, because those are the issues that touch the lives of most of my constituents.


But when 500,000 people march in peace on an issue that’s so important to their lives, their livelihood and their families, I feel compelled to get involved, regardless of whether it’s a good issue or a bad issue for me.


Q: Since you got involved in a very visible and active way a few weeks ago, what has the reaction been?

A: The letters and e-mails have been overwhelmingly negative, maybe 500 to 1, maybe a little more.... But I think we’re elected to do what’s right, not necessarily what’s popular.


Q: Illegal immigrants place some burden on city services, whether it’s fire or police or sewer or whatever. Is there any way to measure the cost that the city of Los Angeles pays to care for people who are here illegally, and is that a cost worth paying?

A: I don’t know what the cost of providing services to the undocumented would be, but I do know this: The responsibility for those costs is the federal government’s, and for more than a decade I have maintained that the federal government, which receives the Social Security and income taxes generated by these immigrants, should reimburse cities and counties for any expense incurred.


Q: Would the Los Angeles Unified School District do a better job of educating if it excluded children who are undocumented?

A: Our schools are compelled by the Constitution to provide all residents with a public school education, so that’s a hypothetical that the law doesn’t provide for.


Q: Are there any proposals before Congress that you support?

A: For many years now, I have said that every country in the world has immigration laws, we have every right to have immigration laws, and, as a nation founded on the principle of the rule of law, it is our responsibility to enforce those laws and to have consequences when our laws are broken.

Finally, I’ve said that while we have every right to enforce our immigration laws, that in a great and good America founded on the backs of immigrants, we must enforce those laws in a humane and constitutional way.


Q: Which, if any, proposals in Congress would do that?

A: I believe that the McCain-Kennedy framework is the best vehicle to do that.


Q: What makes it superior to other bills?

A: It rejects the idea that we would take 12 million immigrants and turn them into felons. It includes tougher enforcement, employer sanctions for businesses that hire the undocumented. Smart border security. Collaboration with our neighbors. And it gives the 12 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status, provided they pay a fine, pass a background check and learn to speak English. This is important.

Finally, it doesn’t pull these people ahead of the line.


Q: Would legislation that legalizes some immigrants, based on how long they have been in this country, and leaves some others illegal help or hurt this situation?

A: I think it’s impractical, and it would be a bureaucratic nightmare.


Q: How has this issue affected the national political equation? Are Republicans in danger of heading down a Pete Wilson path? Are Democrats at risk of seeming to coddle lawlessness?

A: I haven’t spent a lot of time speculating on the political ramifications of this issue. I approach it as an issue about values, not politics.


Q: What do you see happening next on the national front? And what do you imagine your role will be in this?

A: My hope is that upon return from recess that the Congress will realize that the McCain-Kennedy framework is the most sensible, bipartisan immigration proposal that secures our borders, enforces our laws but provides a pathway for citizenship....

My role, you know, my focus, is on the city that I was elected to serve, but I will continue to advocate for a sensible, bipartisan immigration reform.

I’m a third-generation American who believes in the American Dream and has an unbreakable faith in the generosity of the American people.


Q: We’ve had a lot of protests here in recent weeks, from the 500,000-person march that you mentioned to the smaller demonstration last week and the school protests. Obviously, this has been at some disruption -- police services, loss of attendance-based money to the schools. Would you like to see these protests continue, or do you think the time has come to move the action back to Congress?

A: America was founded on protest, freedom of speech ...


Q: ... And of the press.

A: Right. Freedom of speech is a long-held principle, a guiding principle of our democracy. So I respect the right of people to make their voices heard.

But I do believe that it is imperative that these demonstrations continue to be peaceful and have as a tone and tenor a hopeful and optimistic character. I do strongly believe that we should distinguish between adults and school-age children who, while also having a right to demonstrate, should do it before or after school and not during.